Book Review: Unreasonable Hospitality

Rating: 🧑‍🍳💋

Unreasonable Hospitality is a book by Will Guidara about his experience in the restaurant industry. In particular, he writes about managing Eleven Madison Park (EMP) for 11 years, taking it from a “mere” 2 stars to being awarded the prize of best restaurant in the world.

Guidara is the first to call out the silliness and practical importance of this award:

…it’s absolutely ridiculous to call any restaurant “the best restaurant in the world.” But the importance of the 50 Best list is that it names the places that are having the greatest impact on the world of food at a given moment in time.

Guidara worked with the Swiss chef Daniel Humm to ensure that the food was excellent, but Guidara’s priority was making the overall hospitality experience at EMP mind blowing. Their real innovation in the world of fine dining was picking apart and refining the experience itself to “unreasonable” levels.

The book has a bit of a business/management focus at times, which can be off-putting in a purely capitalist self-help kind of way, but the stories and lessons Guidara shares from his time at EMP are widely applicable, interesting, and well worth the read. I really loved this book.

I first learned about it from Season 2, Episode 7 of The Bear, where Richie, an obnoxious and irresponsible character, works at an extremely high functioning restaurant for a week. Richie is a bit of a goof, but wants to do right by his daughter and find purpose in the work he does at his cousin Carmy’s Chicago restaurant. Seeing the undeniable results of working on a high functioning hospitality team and realizing that he has a lot to offer in an environment like that completely changes his outlook on his work and life.

Richie in The Bear reading Unreasonable Hospitality

The restaurant portrayed in this episode is a fictionalized version of Eleven Madison Park, and this became more and more clear as I read through Guidara’s book. At the real life EMP, they plate a street hotdog and serve it to folks who were lamenting missing getting to try one while in NYC – in the show, Richie does the same but with Chicago deep dish pizza. EMP has a complex methodology of service communications, including note passing and sign language, and so does the restaurant in the show. There is this great bit in the show where a smudged plate is talked about as an enormous deal, losing them “47 seconds”, and the main issue is that no one has owned up to the mistake. The book talks about treating employees well and giving them freedom and a voice, while also defining goals clearly and striving for perfection in all things big and small.

That episode of TV is my favorite of the past five years at least, maybe ever. I’ve watched it twice and cried a lot both times. I’ve been thinking about work, purpose, and striving for excellence a lot recently. The reason that I loved that episode is that it portrays a high functioning work environment where people unashamedly work hard to deliver something they really believe in. The reason I loved Unreasonable Hospitality is that it tells the story of how that portrayal is actually real and possible.

I’m not going to get too carried away here. I’m sure that EMP had many, many issues and imperfections, both in the hospitality experience delivered and level of buy-in from and good treatment of its staff. And fine dining is still a bit of a weird concept to me personally. How can I ensure that the employees hosting me actually do believe in what they’re doing and are treated well, particularly in such an explicitly subservient dynamic? But the reality holds – there are high functioning teams that deliver amazing things and get fulfillment from doing it.

The book also challenged my idea of what it could mean to be a good friend, partner, or family member. How can I be more “hospitable” to those that I care about, and deliver them delightful and memorable experiences? The creativity and achievement in the book is inspiring for this.

Guidara discusses two interesting tradeoffs, and the importance of balancing and holding a high standard for both sides at all times. First, hospitality versus excellence:

Some people were arguing passionately about the importance of welcome and warmth and connection [(hospitality)], while others were convinced nothing should take precedence over an impeccably trained staff and spit-polishing every formal aspect of the restaurant to a perfect shine [(excellence)].

Putting both hospitality and excellence on our list was a way of recognizing that success was going to come from approaching the problem of hospitality vs. excellence in the most difficult way possible: in order to succeed, we needed to be good at both.

Second, control versus trust:

My compulsive attention to detail is one of my superpowers; it’s how I take aim at perfection. But that tendency also means I’m always walking a tightrope between my desire to guarantee excellence by controlling everything and knowing I want to create an environment of empowerment and collaboration and trust among the people who work for me. Like excellence and hospitality, these two qualities—control and trust—are not friends.

I think these are near universal tensions that anyone can relate to across many situations, from cooking a meal together, hosting friends for a game night, or trying to get something done at work.

Finally, I was also struck by the extreme level of change and reinvention that EMP went through throughout Guidara’s time there. They provided the experience that they wanted to have themselves, and that changed over time as they aged. The took critical feedback extremely seriously and adapted every time. And they continued to change and refine processes well past the point of “good enough”, everything from the coat check to handing over the bill at the end of the meal.

The book is approachable, well written, and very worth it. I’ll sign off with a final quote that I liked from it:

When you work in hospitality—and I believe that whatever you do for a living, you can choose to be in the hospitality business—you have the privilege of joining people as they celebrate the most joyful moments in their lives and the chance to offer them a brief moment of consolation and relief in the midst of their most difficult ones.